James Jacobs’s Anti-Gun Control Argument

A couple days ago, James Jacobs had an interview with TIME Magazine wherein he argued against strict gun control.

Well, “argued” is a bit generous. He didn’t present a coherent argument against gun control, so much as he presented several considerations that could count against increased gun control or certain types of gun control. Similarly, my approach to this reply will be somewhat disconnected. I won’t be positing anything positive, either; this isn’t an argument in favor of gun control or against gun control. I’m just trying to figure out if James Jacobs did a good job of arguing against gun control.

The Argument from Volume

The first thing he said that lends itself to being called an argument is this: the actual number of gun-related homicides is 10,000, not 30,000. While it’s true that 30,000 people die from gun use, 20,000 of those deaths are suicides. Jacobs probably imagines himself replying to an argument like this:

  1. A high number of gun-related deaths is a good reason to enact strict gun control.
  2. 30,000 people die from gun use in America each year.
  3. Therefore, the fact that 30,000 people die from gun use in America each year provides good reason to enact strict gun control.

Jacobs probably thinks it’s not enough for the deaths to be gun-related: it has to be the kind of death that’s non-consensual and unjustified (i.e. is a victim). Here’s the question: why is it that “suicide by gun > homicide by gun” counts against the first premise named above? The best reason I can think of is this: even though someone who commits suicide violates their own agency by ending their life, they are not violating anyone else’s agency. If we were to enact stricter gun control, we would be preventing people from exercising their agency in a way that does not directly impair someone else’s agency. Thus, “suicide by gun > homicide by gun” is a good reason to not enact stricter gun control.

There are problems with this argument (assuming that’s what he had in mind). Suicide should not be considered an instance of rational agency in every instance. There are some instances where the person seeking to end their lives is fully rational and might even have good reason to commit suicide, but this will not be the case in every instance. Since not every case of suicide is rational, that means some cases of suicide violate a person’s agency needlessly — and the same is true for some homicides. Part of the reason why we would want stricter gun control is that some homicides by gun are needless or unjustified. If that’s the case, and since it’s the case some suicides are needless or unjustified, it follows that “suicide by gun > homicide by gun” is actually a reason in favor of stricter gun control.

There’s another problem with the argument, however. Even if the counter-argument I posited doesn’t convince you, it seems intuitively true that murder is morally worse than suicide. I posit that this is because it’s the penultimate violation of another person’s agency: it is irrevocable and happens without their consent. Given that murder is morally worse than suicide, it seems to me that we have a good reason to restrict access to firearms — no matter the fact that guns are more commonly involved in suicides than in homicides.

The Argument from International Comparison

As Jacob Davidson, the writer of the TIME article being discussed here, pointed out: the UK and Australia are commonly cited as countries wherein firearms are outlawed (or mostly outlawed), and their homicide-by-gun rates are significantly lower than ours. The argument then goes: it works for them, why not for us?

Jacobs doesn’t think it could work for us. In a way, I agree with him: right now, a total ban would not work for us. However, this isn’t about me — it’s about him. Let’s take a look at his reasons.

First, regarding England:

But the U.K.’s policy could not work in the U.S. because we have a Constitution, we have a Second Amendment, and we have a Supreme Court decision that guarantees the right of Americans to keep and bear arms in their home for lawful purposes. So we cannot have a prohibition of private ownership of firearms.

I get that this guy is a criminologist and a professor of constitutional law, but this a piss poor argument (authority figures making bad arguments!? shocking!). “We have a Constitution” — it can be amended. “We have a Second Amendment” — we’ve repealed an amendment before. “We have a Supreme Court decision” — yeah yeah, stare decisis, blah blah blah. You don’t get an ought from an is, buddy. Just because you have a certain state of affairs, you don’t automatically get a moral imperative or prohibition.

Enough of that. Here’s what he says about the Australia comparison:

Australia had a gun buyback program and prohibited new purchases of many types of firearms. We have tried gun buybacks in the United States and they have been unsuccessful. People do not wish to sell their guns to the government, and those who do almost invariably sell old guns so they can get the money and buy new guns.

Australia’s gun buyback program went pretty well:

in 2012 a study by Australian National University’s Andrew Leigh and Wilfrid Laurier University’s Christine Neill concluded that in the decade after the law was introduced, the firearm homicide rate dropped by 59 percent and the firearm suicide rate fell by 65, with no corresponding increase in homicides and suicides committed without guns.

When a gun buyback has been attempted in America, apparently the results have not been very good. Usually the guns that have been turned in aren’t typically used in criminal activity, which means gun-related crime rates aren’t impacted. Since it seems like American attempts at gun buybacks are failures, it seems like we shouldn’t bother with them.

Here’s the problem with this argument: it’s one thing for a policy, successfully enacted, to fail; it’s another thing entirely for a policy that wasn’t enacted to the fullest degree to fail. It seems like our attempts at gun buybacks fall into that latter category rather than the former. It would be one thing if we successfully bought back the firearms used in violent crimes and we saw no decline in crime rates. However, that hasn’t happened, so our gun buyback problems have yet to fail in the way that matters.

The “Ought Implies Can”* Argument

Jacobs also replies to the notion that gun crime can be reduced by having stricter background checks, keeping a gun registry, and taking steps to keep guns out of mentally-ill hands. Here’s a summary of his reply: these sound like good things, and on paper they’d be effective, but enacting them and making them effective is soooooooooo haaaaard.

While Jacobs never explicitly states that the difficulty involved is a reason against doing these things, let’s imagine that’s what he’s saying. This sounds like a version of the ought implies can argument: since doing X would be really difficult, we have a good reason not to do X and explore alternatives. However, something’s being really difficult isn’t a good reason not to do it. For instance, if you had good reason to believe that someone you know was about to commit a murder, and you’d have to jump through a lot of hoops to stop them, would you just say “eh…that’s too much trouble. I’ll just let him go kill someone”? Probably not. The moral badness of murder outweighs the difficulty involved in stopping it if you have the ability and the opportunity. Similarly, if it’s possible that some Policy Y can prevent Moral Atrocity X, we have good reason to enact Policy Y and take necessary measures to make sure it succeeds.


 

In summary: What do I think of Jacobs’s argument against gun control? I don’t think he’s made a very strong case against it. He might not have the wrong conclusion — that we shouldn’t have stricter gun control — but he doesn’t have the right reasons for thinking as such.

Have any thoughts on my critique of Jacobs’s argument? Share them below!

Like what you’ve read here, even if you disagree with me? Enlist my writing and editing services on Fiverr!

 

*For the philosophically uninitiated: “ought implies can” is the notion that we only have a moral duty to do something only if we have the ability to do that thing. For instance, it wouldn’t make sense to say that an impoverished individual has a duty to donate $1,000 precisely because they wouldn’t be able to do so.

 

Charee Stanley vs. Kim Davis: Double-Standard?

Kim Davis, the Kentucky County Clerk, was recently jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation. Some have compared her situation to that of Charee Stanley, a Muslim woman who filed a discrimination lawsuit against Express Jet, her former employer. Due to her religious commitments, she could not serve alcohol, and as such she set up an arrangement with her coworkers to serve alcohol on her behalf. Although the arrangement was working well, she was put on administrative leave after a coworker complained about her wearing a hijab at work. It is this incident that led to her lawsuit. Some writers have asserted that having a favorable reception to Stanley’s case but not towards Davis’s situation means employing a double-standard.

When we talk about double-standards, I think we’re talking about this: given two agents who act or desire to act in identical or significantly similar ways, we apply two different sets of standards regarding whether or not they ought to be allowed to act in their desired way, even though their situations or capacities, in as much as they are relevant to the considered act, are significantly similar. For example, suppose we have a set of twins, both of whom are sixteen years old. They both have good grades, are responsible, etc. However, only one of them is allowed to drive/have a license, and this in spite of the fact that their parents have enough money to give both of them a car. This is clearly a double-standard, and probably a morally objectionable one. Suppose we change the scenario just slightly, such that the parents only have enough money to give one of them a car. Is this a double standard? If it isn’t, it’s precisely because there’s a circumstance whereupon it makes sense to treat one agent differently from the other, but the circumstance belongs to the third party who needs to make a decision between two agents. With all that being said, here’s my thesis, if you can call it that: there is no double-standard at work between Davis’s situation and Stanley’s case.

If there’s a double-standard at work between these two cases, their actions and the circumstances surrounding their actions should be significantly similar. Regarding Davis, the action in question is refusing to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples (and heterosexual couples, but she really just cares about the former group). Regarding Stanley, the action in question is refusing to issue alcoholic drinks. I don’t think these actions are similar. Davis is refusing to issue a license that would give individuals access to a social institution that has great significance in American culture at-large and, perhaps subsequently, in a wide variety of social circumstances. In other words, she is refusing to provide a service that, if rendered, could have lifelong implications for the relevant couples. Furthermore, her refusal has a significant emotional impact on those seeking a marriage license.

Stanley is refusing a service whose significance is smaller: alcoholic drinks do not have nearly as much cultural or social significance as marriage. For instance, one’s having an alcoholic drink will not change their tax status, nor will it automatically change the attitudes people have towards them (i.e. marriage makes people seem “mature” or makes it seem like they “have their life together”). This is not to say that there is no social significance attached to alcohol at all. To deny that would be to deny the seriousness of issues like drunk driving and alcoholism; it would also be to deny the fact that, in America, coming of drinking age is perceived as cause for celebration. However, one’s coming of age does not automatically entail huge life changes, save for having a pre-disposition towards alcoholism or being involved in a terrible accident thereafter. Unlike marriage, there is not a system of benefits/privileges attached to drinking alcohol. Although drinking alcohol is surely glorified in American media, it is not extolled as a virtuous institution nor is it perceived as the bedrock of society. Drinking alcohol, in other words, lacks the same kind of cultural significance that marriage possesses. Furthermore, unlike the refusal to issue a marriage license, refusing to serve someone alcohol is a mere annoyance; being told that someone else will have to bring you a drink is not likely to be a heartbreaking refusal, like refusing someone a marriage license would be. Thus, Stanley’s action is dissimilar from Davis’s action in virtue of its impact and the significance of its object.

What about the circumstances surrounding their actions? The difficult thing here is determining what the relevant circumstances are. I’m not convinced that the constitutionality of the Supreme Court’s ruling is relevant, but let’s suppose it is relevant. Some have argued that the Supreme Court’s ruling is unconstitutional, insofar as this sort of decision ought to be made by Congress or on a state-to-state basis. Let’s suppose those people are right.

Davis could then argue, on constitutional grounds rather than purely religious grounds, that she has a duty not to issue licenses to homosexuals because the Supreme Court overstepped its constitutional boundaries. Stanley obviously doesn’t have the same thing going for her, although she is able to appeal to her First Amendment rights and discrimination law (indeed, that’s what she did). In a very broad sense, there seem to be legal factors that they could appeal to in order to explain/justify their decisions. I’ll leave it at that, because there are personal and/or professional circumstances to consider.

Let’s start with the professional circumstances. I took the liberty of looking up the duties attached to Kentucky’s County Clerk position. Here’s the short of it: issuing marriage licenses is just one among many of Davis’s duties. Furthermore, she could have delegated those duties to a deputy. Stanley’s situation appears to be similar, at least at first glance. Doubtless, serving alcohol is just one among many of her duties. Obviously, a situation was also created, if only briefly, where that duty was delegated to one of her coworkers. So we have a similarity between their professional circumstances.

There is a way in which their professional circumstances differ, and it’s primarily because of their personal circumstances. Obviously they are both devout religious individuals, and that bears upon their work decisions and requests. From what I understand about Davis’s situation and decisions, it’s not just that she personally was refusing to issue licenses, but that she refused to allow her deputies to issue those licenses. One proposed solution was that instead of having her name on the licenses, it simply be stamped with something along the lines of “Acknowledged by the State of Kentucky” — or something along those lines. I don’t think that would solve her crisis of conscience. She would obviously be approving of those licenses on behalf of the state. No matter what the stamp says, I don’t think she would be able to disassociate her personal beliefs from the act of approval on a subjective level. Furthermore, even if she delegated the duty to deputies, I suspect that she would continue to have a crisis of conscience: she would be authorizing her coworkers to do something that she finds either unconstitutional or immoral. Again, I think it would be difficult for her to disassociate herself from that act — indeed, she told her deputies not to issue licenses. It seems she can’t disassociate herself from her deputies’ acts. One way she could solve her crisis of conscience while hanging on to her job is changing her beliefs, but she isn’t likely to do that. She could solve her crisis of conscience by resigning, but obviously she won’t do that either. In other words, there are four ways for her to solve her crisis of conscience, but I don’t think she’s comfortable with any of them. On the other hand, there is a solution for Stanley’s situation: her employer continues with the setup wherein one of Stanley’s coworkers serves alcohol on her behalf. This setup seems acceptable to Stanley, since she wishes to continue working there. In summary, there is at least one way in which their professional and personal circumstances differ: there exists an arrangement for Stanley’s concerns that allows her to hold on to her job and would not require her to compromise her conscience; there doesn’t seem to be a solution of that sort for Davis.

Although their professional and legal situations seem fairly similar, there are some dissimilarities contained therein due to their personal circumstances. We could go back and forth about the degree of their dissimilarities, but we really don’t need to. As I said earlier, their circumstances and actions need to be similar in order for a double standard to obtain. Even supposing that their circumstances are similar enough, the actions they are taking are very different from one another in virtue of their impact and social significance. Thus, it is false that their circumstances and actions are similar enough to warrant the charge that there’s a double standard at-play. Hence, we can conclude that there is no double standard being employed.

The problem with this meme… (Some Thoughts on Gender Equality)

critique

I’m a 21-year old guy (almost 22). I am not now nor have I ever been a woman; I am not now nor have I ever been a housewife, or a wife of any sort; I am not now nor have I ever been a working woman, a working mom, a working girlfriend, a working wife, etc. Anything with the word ‘woman’ in it, I haven’t been that, I am not that, and I never will be that. Now, I have studied some feminist philosophy, and I certainly subscribe to the statement ‘the personal is political’. At the same time, I would never presume that this gives me the right to speak on a woman’s behalf. So in what follows, I’m not saying that this is what women think. I’m merely stating some observations that I have made as a guy who has studied feminist philosophy and cares about gender equality at home, in the workforce, in politics, etc.

I’m not particularly interested in the picture itself, although one could suggest that it’s objectifying to women, that this speaks volumes about how we still think of gender roles and norms, etc etc. I’m not concerned about that; pictures are difficult to interpret, and I’m no art major. I’m more concerned with the words in this meme.

In itself, there’s nothing wrong with a woman doing any of those things. I think it’s reasonable to sometimes expect your significant other to ‘give you a break’ every now and then, but then again I’ve never been married. I do know this much, however: at the end of the day, both people are tired. If the woman is a housewife, then she’s been bustling about taking care of the house all day long. Now she’s expected to make the man dinner on top of everything else? Is that a fair expectation? Why can’t the man give her a break and make both of them dinner? True, the man is probably tired too. But just because he’s tired, why should that automatically mean that it’s the woman who has to make dinner if she’s tired as well?

And if both people are working, then this is all a very unfair expectation. Do we really expect the woman to do all the cleaning and cooking after she gets home? Is that really a fair expectation? If both people are equally tired, it doesn’t make any sense to just dump the duties on the wife anymore than it makes sense to dump all of them on the husband.

And why should it be that only the woman has to clean? Let’s say all the housework gets done over the weekend — is it fair to expect that only the woman has to pitch in? Why doesn’t the man have any duties? Why shouldn’t we expect the man to not only wash his clothes, but wash his wife’s clothes as well? There’s nothing wrong with the wife doing the laundry every now and then, but is there really a good reason to expect that only she has to do it? Because honestly, the laundry is one of the easiest chores to do in the house. There’s really no good reason why all of the housework ought to fall on the woman alone or on the man alone — it should fall on them equally.

Nor is there anything wrong with the woman giving the man a massage. It feels pretty good. I love it when my girlfriend gives me a massage, but if she’s sore and tired, my hands had better damn well get to work, too.

Here’s the point of all that I’m saying: There’s nothing wrong with a woman ‘catering to’ her significant other, so long as the other person reciprocates regularly. There’s no good reason for it to be 100/0, 75/25, or 60/40. The only fair situation is where this ‘catering’ is a 50/50 thing.

(As an aside, I don’t know why we’re thinking of doing chores as ‘catering’. That’s just stuff that needs to get done around the house. Whoever is doing the chores isn’t really doing the other person a favor, strictly speaking. Really, the person doing the chores is doing a favor for everyone who lives in the house, themselves included. For instance, I just got done doing the dishes. I didn’t just do my mom a favor or my brother a favor, I did myself a favor too: now I have some clean dishes to eat off of!)

My experience with Christianity

I was a Christian for what felt like a considerable period of time, but compared to other people, I suppose four or five years is a very short amount of time to be in a religion. I was about twenty when I left, and I certainly do not regret my decision. Overall I found myself content, but towards the end of my trek I felt increasingly dissatisfied and emotionally…unwell, let’s just say. By the same token, I wouldn’t say that I regret having become a Christian. It’s part of my personal history, and is therefore part of who I am. It’s a period of my life that I left behind, but there’s no denying the mark left on me. Whether its nature is positive or negative I cannot say. Furthermore, I do not necessarily hate Christianity…well, I’ve grown to dislike contemporary Christianity, at least as I experienced it. Perhaps I also dislike the Christianity that follows faithfully from the Bible, at least some parts of it. But then, perhaps not. For all I know, I’ve only experienced contemporary Christianity — whatever the hell that is.

The point of this post is not to gain attention. This is mostly for myself: I want to put down, once and for all, why I will never come back. Still, I want to point out what I enjoyed, or what I perceived to be the most positive aspects of my experience. If, per chance, people reply to this, that’s fine. They can reply however they want — they can even try to persuade me back, if they’d like. Do what they like, this is for my own closure.

The Good

1. Community — At least as I experienced Christianity, there was a strong emphasis on community. I felt, on the whole, like I was part of something bigger than myself. This is, of course, an important part of being human. It seems like we all want to feel that. I don’t lack this currently, though. Through philosophy, I still feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself: the search for truth, wisdom, and understanding.

2. Acceptance — For the most part, I felt accepted by others, regardless of my flaws, quirks, etc. Well…quirks…that’s another thing all together. I sometimes had the feeling that some of my personal traits marked me out in a less-than-favorable way. On the whole, though, I never felt actively stigmatized in virtue of my personal traits, even though there were some who kept their interactions with me somewhat minimal. Whether or not it was because of those particular traits, I have no clue. But then again, that’s normally how human interactions work. Perhaps I expected too much.

Unfortunately, in terms of the good, that’s about it. Perhaps someone who knew me can insist that I experienced more good things. Of course, it’s up to me to decide whether or not the suggested things were actually good. In any event, here comes the real substance of the post…

Why I’ll Never Go Back

What I’m about to list are arguments that most every Christian is familiar with. Indeed, as a Christian I was familiar with them. I was never able to come up with a satisfactory counter-argument to them. I don’t think it’s possible. Perhaps a philosopher who is primarily concerned with the existence of God can give satisfactory answers to the arguments, but if there are any, they have escaped me.

1. God is Either Callous or Impotent — We’ve all heard this argument before, I’m sure. However, I think it’s more potent if we add things from the Bible: Obviously, there’s a lot of evil in the world. Not only that, but that evil is caused by people, and supposedly people are innately sinful. Supposedly, God has the power to mete out justice. Now, ask yourself this: if a judge has the means to sentence a criminal to death (supposing that criminal deserved it), and there’s a guarantee that the sentence would be carried out immediately, would it be just for the judge to wait or act immediately? Intuitively, the just thing would be to act immediately. God, however, does not do that. Supposedly, God has multiple ways of rectifying these situations. It would be just for God to mete out justice via punishment, but perhaps it would also be just if God were to change the relevant parties from the inside out completely. God does neither, apparently. There are two immediate conclusions: he is either callous or impotent.

One could reply that he waits out of wisdom, but the question isn’t one of wisdom. The issue examined here is one of justice. If God has the ability to immediately deal with evil, and if he is a maximally good being, it seems to make sense to say that the just thing would be for God to act immediately. I would invite others to offer a reason why we should think of God’s duties as being different from that of a regular judge. For my part, I can think of none: if, like in the real world, God could hold the relevant criminals away in a cell until they swear to change their minds, that would be fine. They wouldn’t be able to harm others or do various other kinds of evil deeds. However, God doesn’t do that. So I ask: why would it be acceptable to think that God doesn’t have a duty to act immediately?

Consider another analogy: if there’s a serial murderer on the loose, arguably the police have a duty to look for him. Now, we can’t blame them for not capturing him immediately, since their knowledge is imperfect. God has perfect knowledge, however. Why shouldn’t he be held accountable for not dealing with injustices immediately?

It seems to me, given God’s attributes, that we should hold him accountable for not doing something about evil. Either that, or he doesn’t have the attributes he’s purported to have.

2. What’s Up with the Devil? — ‘Lucifer’ became ‘Satan’ when he rebelled against God. God created ‘Lucifer’, knowing that he would become ‘Satan’. God also knew that ‘Satan’ would be responsible for creating all sorts of evil on earth. Why did God create ‘Lucifer’? More importantly, why didn’t God destroy ‘Satan’? Alternatively, why didn’t he make Hell a better prison for ‘Satan’? Seriously, there are some design flaws with that place if ‘Satan’ was able to get out and tempt Adam and Eve.

There were several points where God could have intervened in ‘Satan’s’ machinations. Supposedly, if he had done that, the world wouldn’t be such a screwed up place. Once again, the conclusion is the same: God is either callous or unjust for not doing anything.

3. The Resurrection is Question-Begging — Here’s what I mean: the only way that the resurrection could have happened is if an omnipotent God existed. In itself, that’s not a huge problem. But here’s what the problem is: there aren’t any arguments that can suggest the existence of an omnipotent God. There’s probably an ontological argument for it, but whether or not it’s any good is another question all-together. Think of all the arguments you know: the cosmological argument, the design argument, the ontological argument. If they are any good, they can establish that some kind of God exists. However, they cannot establish his specific nature apart from the fact that he’s the ‘greatest’ or ‘perfect’ (what exactly constitutes ‘greatest’ and ‘perfect’, anyway?), or that he at least had enough power to create the universe, get life started, etc. For all we know, that single act might have drained his power. These arguments can’t establish anything beyond that.

One could say that there are natural signs that indicate God’s nature and power, but one person’s natural sign is another person’s purely empirical experience and nothing more. In other words, your subjective experiences are not enough to establish something about the nature of a deity.

Since we can’t establish the existence of a omnipotent deity, we can’t establish that the resurrection — the cornerstone of Christian doctrine — happened. In other words, we can’t establish that the consequent of the following obtains: “If there’s an omnipotent God, the resurrection is possible.” Now, one could say that the historical evidence points to Jesus’s resurrection. If it happened, that means it’s possible. However, from that we cannot conclude that there’s an omnipotent God: we’d be committing the fallacy of assuming the antecedent.

Really, these are just some of my beefs with Christianity. However, I can think of no logical solution to them. One could reply that there is no logical solution to these problems, true, but we have to accept that God is good and all-powerful on faith. To which I reply: yeah, it certainly seems that way. You’ll have to excuse me, though, if I choose to reject the Christian God on the basis of arguments that leave me with no doubt regarding either the callous quality of his character or his lack of omniscience and omnipotence.

True, logic is not all that matters — we cannot live our whole lives on logic. Hell, I still consider myself agnostic. The best arguments for the existence of a deity are inductive in nature, which means that the conclusion is never certain. Still, I find them convincing enough that I’m willing to concede that some sort of deity (probably) exists, even though I have no certain evidence or arguments for its existence. You could say that I am making a bit of a leap of faith in conceding that. However, given Christian doctrine, I cannot concede that the God of the Bible exists. For my part, I find the arguments impassible and damning. Even though they did not lead to my rejection of Christianity, they will certainly sustain it.

Feels good to get that off my chest. We will now return to our original programming — philosophy and ethics! (Technically I just did philosophy of religion, but whatevs.)

What Spongebob Can Teach Us About Moral Deliberation

Considering Everyone’s Interests

When it comes to moral thinking, it’s commonsensical that we ought to give equal consideration to the interests of the people affected by our actions. Broadly speaking, this means that whenever we’re faced with a moral dilemma and our decision affects other people, we need to make sure that we act in a way that fulfills the interests of others.

It sounds simple, but the way it works out is far from obvious. Should we should choose the action that brings about the greatest satisfaction of interests, even if it’s just for one person? Or should we have to choose the action realizing everyones interests, even if that means we have a relatively low sum?

Aside from being an everyday problem, we also see this dilemma on TV. The main character has multiple friends who really need her help. She doesn’t want to disappoint any of them, so she tries to juggle going from one friend to the other. Mayhem ensues, but the main character is forgiven and the show ends on the implication that they’ll work something out eventually.

That sounds like the latter approach to the equal consideration principle; let’s just call that the egalitarian approach. The main character is certainly realizing their interests equally, but it’s at a low amount. If she took the former approach — let’s call it the aggregation approach — the main character might make a commitment to one or two of her friends. Sadly, that leaves everyone else out in the cold.

Intuitively, aggregation seems like the way to go in these sorts of scenarios. However, that might just be because we’re led to believe the egalitarian approach is either impractical or leaves a lot of people dissatisfied. If maximizing people’s happiness, preferences, welfare, etc just is the morally right thing to do, the egalitarian approach seems to be right out.

Aggregation, in that light, seems to be the correct approach. However, it rests on the assumption that the only way to deliberate about these problems is to dwell on immediate solutions, rather than trying to solve problems over a longer period of time. If we approached this dilemmas with a long-term approach, we might be able to combine the egalitarian and aggregation approaches to satisfactorily meet everyone’s needs.

Aggregating & Equalizing

To see how this approach would work, I’ll use an example from the show Spongebob Squarepants (don’t judge me). Mr. Krabs wants Spongebob to help him build a telescope; Sandy wants Spongebob to help her with a science conference presentation; and Patrick wants Spongebob to come to his birthday problem. All on the same night. Here are the  values of their interests:

Value of Interests
Mr. Krabs: 10
Sandy: 10
Patrick: 10

Suppose he can’t satisfy all of their interests, but he can satisfy some of them. Let’s start assume that aggregation is the right thing to do. There are two options:

Option 1
Sandy: 7
Patrick: 7
Mr. Krabs: 0

Option 2
Mr. Krabs: 10

Obviously, the sum of Option 1 is higher than that of Option 2. If we assume that aggregation is the right thing to do, Spongebob should obviously do Option 1. However, taking the aggregative approach requires us to assume that the right thing to do, or at least the best thing to do, is to satisfy needs immediately.

What if that’s wrong? Let’s suppose that we take a long-term perspective with satisfying the interests of others. Here’s what Spongebob could do:

Option 3

Evening 1
Sandy: 10

Evening 2
Patrick: 8

Evening 3
Mr. Krabs: 6

If we add their sums together, we get 24 — certainly higher than aggregation’s immediate approach. Now, in terms of the values yielded for each person, it doesn’t seem like an egalitarian approach: the individual satisfaction values are relatively disparate.

Nevertheless, even if Option 3 isn’t unqualifiedly egalitarian, it’s the most egalitarian option available so far. Option 1 is definitely not egalitarian: the average difference is 4. Under Option 3, the average difference between the individual values is 2 — which is far closer to an egalitarian arrangement. Thus, if we take a long-term approach to aggregation, we get a hybrid between the egalitarian approach and the aggregation approach.

Let’s keep examining this approach. Suppose the values of each person’s satisfaction is lower on Evening 2 and Evening 3. We get the following:

Option 4

Evening 1
Sandy: 10

Evening 2
Patrick: 2

Evening 3
Mr. Krabs: 0

Sum: 12

This might indicate a flaw in the long-term approach: we can’t guarantee everyone’s interests will be satisfied, period. However, I don’t think this is true. It seems like Mr. Krabs would have a satisfaction rating of 1 if Spongebob at least tried to help out. In which case, the sum of their satisfaction would be 13. Nevertheless, this brings up egalitarian-aggregation approach’s real problem: the long-term approach could yield a sum lower than the immediate approach.

Fine, then let’s try things this way:

Option 5

Evening 1
Sandy: 7
Patrick: 7

Evening 2
Mr. Krabs: 1

Sum: 15

Obviously, this sum is higher than Option 1’s. Thus, here’s the reply to the problem: it all depends on how Spongebob works things out with his friends. It’s possible to fulfill everyone’s interests in the long-run and still get a higher yield than we would via the immediate approach.

We now see that we can consider everyone’s interests by combining aggregation and egalitarianism. That doesn’t tell us whether or not this is actually the right course of action, though. In the mean time, if you have a friend faced with these sorts of improbable situations, tell them to aggregate and equalize!…They’ll have no idea what you’re saying, but you’ll sound smart.

“I’ve Got a Hunch”: Right, Wrong, and our intuitions about that stuff

W.D. Ross advocates a deontic approach to the moral right in “The Right and the Good”, and he explicitly sets himself up against utilitarianism. In other words, he advocates thinking of moral principles as being right/wrong in themselves, rather than in virtue of the positive/negative outcomes caused by one’s actions. In particular, he sets himself up against G.E. Moore’s “ideal utilitarianism”: right actions just are those that produce the most positive outcomes compared to other available courses of action. In other words, an action’s rightness is determined by whether or not it actually benefits the affected agents, and the accrued benefits are the best possible ones. On Ross’s account, however, the foundation of an action’s rightness is the particular relationship that exists between agents in a given circumstance. I have three goals here: explain Ross’s critique of ideal utilitarianism; explain Ross’s account of moral duties; and provide a critique of Ross’s account.

Ross seems to have one major criticism of utilitarianism: it is false that there is a connection between what is good and what is right. That is, goodness is not constitutive of an action’s rightness. Ross proposes two ways of understanding how it is that goodness might constitute rightness. First, if an action produces the most amount of good, it is right; additionally, if an action is right, then it produces the most amount of good. Therefore, an action is right if and only if it produces the most amount of good. Second, since there’s a consistent relationship between rightness and goodness — that is, rightness doesn’t seem to obtain unless goodness also obtains — we can induce that maximal goodness constitutes rightness.

Regarding the first interpretation, Ross asserts that neither premise is true. For instance, suppose I make a promise to my girlfriend (A), and by keeping my promise to her she would accrue 50 units of good. There is also something I could do for my brother (B), and that action would allow him to accrue 51 units of good. However, in order to do B, I’d have to reneg on A. On Ross’s understanding, the utilitarian would say that the obvious course of action is B, but that doesn’t seem right. Intuitively, it seems like I have good reason to do A instead. If one accepts this reasoning, then the argument of the first interpretation is false. That is, it’s not necessarily the case that an action which produces the most amount of good is right, and vice versa.

Regarding the second interpretation, Ross asserts that it would be impossible to establish such a constitutive relationship inductively. Not only would we have to analyze every possible action that an individual could do in a given situation, but we’d have to analyze the effects that each action has on individuals indirectly affected by the action; we’d also have to analyze the effects that each action would have in the future. Perhaps we could establish that “a large variety of typical acts that are judged right appear, so far as we can trace their consequences, to produce more good than any other acts possible to the agents in the circumstances” (Ross 272). However, the utilitarian needs to demonstrate that goodness is always constitutive of rightness, so the utilitarian would have to examine every possible outcome of an action — both direct and indirect. Obviously, this is impossible. Hence, Ross concludes that we have no reason to accept the utilitarian thesis.

Ross suggests that certain actions are right in virtue of certain situations we find ourselves in. For instance, if someone makes a promise, they automatically have a duty to keep that promise. Alternatively, if one comes across someone who is suffering, they have a duty to relieve their suffering. In other words, certain situations give rise to prima facie duties: actions that we are obligated to execute under certain circumstances. The grounding of some of our prima facie duties is that they “bring [intrinsically good things] into existence” (Ross 264). For instance, it seems intrinsically good that we should help others make others happy or bring them pleasure (Ross 264). From this would arise the duty to be benevolent towards others, whether they are suffering or not. There is, however, another way that prima facie duties can obtain, viz. through our own actions. For instance, when someone makes a promise, they “create an expectation that [they] can be counted on to behave in a certain way in the interest of another person” (Ross 266). By creating such an expectation, they therefore obligate themselves to fulfill their promise.

In addition to prima facie duties, we have actual duties. That is, there are certain actions that we are obligated to do given every component of a situation that we find ourselves in. These actual duties must, of course, derive from prima facie duties. For instance, suppose I have promised my girlfriend to meet her at a certain time (A). However, my brother is seriously injured and needs my help at the time I agreed to meet her (B). I am now faced with two prima facie duties: a duty to keep a promise, and a duty to alleviate my brother’s suffering. Intuitively, I should do B and forsake A. Notice that I said “intuitively” (i.e. a strong intellectual hunch, similar to a gut feeling about something). Ross does not think that we can know our duties, whether prima facie or actual, via argumentation. Rather, we know what our duties are intuitively (i.e. our duties are self-evident). In the case of actual duties, however, this does not exempt us from having to think about what we ought to do. Ross points out that “we are more likely to do our duty if we reflect to the best of our ability on the pima facie rightness or wrongness of various possible acts” (Ross 269). By doing this, we can at least have a likely idea of what our actual duty is, even if the conclusion is entirely intuitive rather than the conclusion of a formal argument.

I have two problems with Ross’s argument — both his account of the right and his argument against utilitarianism. I will deal with the latter first. In setting up my criticism, consider the following key passages:

“Apart from my general prima facie duty to do to A what good I can, I have another prima facie duty to do him the particular service I have promised to do him, and this is not to be set aside in consequence of a disparity of good of the order of 1,001 to 1,000…Such instances…make it clear that there is no self-evident connexion between the attributes ‘right’ and ‘optimific’” (Ross 271).

“[I]f we suppose two men dying together alone, do we think that the duty of one to fulfill before he does a promise he has made to the other would be extinguished by the fact that neither act would have any effect on the general confidence [of society]? Anyone who holds this may be suspected of not having reflected on what a promise is” (Ross 273).

Ross believes that these arguments provide a refutation to utilitarianism. However, there is something important to note about these arguments. Either example concludes that we ought not break our promises on entirely intuitive grounds, and the same can be said for the final example he gives. The problem is that Ross is criticizing utilitarianism via a standard that his opponents don’t accept. His opponents would say that we determine what is right based on our knowledge of which actions are most conducive to positive outcomes. Ross, on the other hand, asserts that we know what is right based on our intuitions. He seems to be trying to refute his opponent’s stance, but he’s attempting to do this via his own position. This is problematic because he fails to provide two things. First, he does not provide any reason to reject the utilitarian thesis qua self-evident principle (Ross 270). Comparing the utilitarian thesis to Ross’s intuitionist thesis, it does seem as if the intuitionist thesis is more self-evident. However, the question isn’t one of comparison. The question is whether or not the utilitarian thesis is self-evident at all. Merely asserting that his thesis lines up with our intuitions does not establish that the utilitarian thesis is not self-evident. It could be that the utilitarian thesis is not self-evident, but this is not established by simply asserting (implicitly) that his thesis is actually self-evident.

The second thing that Ross fails to do is provide non-intuitive support for his thesis. In this case, Ross’s specific claim is that we know that things are morally right via our intuitions. In order for us to know that something is morally right intuitively, we need to be certain of two things. First, we need to be certain that our intuitions are revealing certain duties to us because the relevant actions just are morally right. Second, we need to be certain that our intuitions are reliable sources of knowledge. The first assumption might be unwarranted. It could be the case that we have our particular moral intuitions because we have been socialized in a certain way. This is not an implausible assumption: for instance, many people in America believe that one has a right to do with their food what they please, so long as they are the ones who earned it. Contrast this with the intuition that someone from a hunting-gathering tribe might have: it doesn’t matter who caught the animal, the meat belongs to the entire community. The simplest explanation for why they have these differing moral intuitions isn’t that one of them is right and the other is wrong. Rather, the simplest explanation is that they were socialized differently, hence their differing intuitions. This isn’t to say that neither of them is right, but that’s not the point. Rather, just having an intuition about something being right or wrong doesn’t indicate that we have this intuition because the action is actually right or actually wrong.

The second assumption encounters a far more difficult problem. In order to be certain that our intuitions are reliable sources of knowledge, we’d have to demonstrate their reliability without using our intuitions. That is, we cannot say that it’s intuitively true that our intuitions are reliable, because we’d be assuming that our intuitions are reliable — we’d be assuming exactly what we’re trying to prove. It’s like trying to prove that the Bible is true by pointing out certain passages in the Bible: you have to assume it’s true in order to prove that it’s true. It just doesn’t work.

There are two ways to avoid this problem: we could either argue that our intuitions are reliable a priori (i.e. without referring to experience), or we argue that they are reliable a posteriori (i.e. referring only to experience). On the one hand, we use reason alone, but on the other hand we use our senses and inductive reasoning. Suppose that we are able to successfully construct two sets of arguments for the reliability of our intuitions based on either method. In order for these arguments to be successful, we’d also have to establish the reliability of the faculties used to construct them. We wouldn’t be able to use our intuitions in order to establish their reliability, since we’re trying to prove that this very faculty is reliable. If we use our senses to prove the reliability of reason, we’d need an argument for the reliability of our senses; and vice versa. There’s an obvious problem looming overhead: no matter how we try to demonstrate the reliability of our intuitions, we either demonstrate its reliability circularly and therefore establish nothing at all, or we’re left throwing our hands up in the air with no argument at all.

In the end, I think Ross is right about this much: certain actions just are morally right or wrong, regardless of their consequences. For instance, I have tried to come up with counterexamples to how he explains our duty to keep our promises. I think it makes sense to say that when we make a promise, we are saying something like ‘I am obligating myself to do x for you’. At the same time, I’m hoping he’s wrong: it seems to follow the form of the infamous ‘is-ought’ fallacy. That is, it seems to follow a fallacious line of thought that says “because x obtains, people ought to do x” (e.g. because people do drugs, they ought to do drugs). Although, it could be that there are instances where the form of the ‘is-ought’ fallacy is adhered to, and yet the line of thought is not actually fallacious. Ross’s explanation of our duty to keep our promises might be one of them. I also think Ross is right to point out that utilitarianism does rub up against our moral intuitions. The very problem with Ross’s approach, however, is that he is an intuitionist about our moral knowledge. I don’t think that route of critique is open to him, nor do I think he has adequately justified the notion that we know moral truths intuitively. Indeed, I’m not sure that it can be justified, but he is the first intuitionist I have read, so I’ll have to suspend judgment.

I hope you all enjoyed this post. Feel free to leave questions, criticisms, and any other sort of commentary you can think of! Please let me know where the language was confusing. I’m trying to get out of the academic mode of writing, so it would be helpful if others could point out where my language was too technical or obscure. My next few critical summaries will be on contemporary utilitarianism and contemporary virtue ethics, in that order. It will be fune stuff. Stay tuned!

Ross, W.D. “The Right and the Good”. Ethics. 10th Edition. Oliver A. Johnson and Andrews Reath. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007. 259-274.

Continuing the Examined Life

I recently graduated from CalState Northridge with my Bachelors degree in Philosophy. This is a fairly new and weird time in my life: for the first time in my life, I’m not a student. Now I’m entering the world of full-time work… or at least I’m attempting to do so. I’m not finished with my education, of course. I’m only taking a few years off to work. During that time, I’ll also be getting ready for grad school — figuring out where I want to go, preparing for the GREs, and most importantly getting a good idea of what I want to focus on in my graduate studies.

My philosophical interests have been pretty consistent: I’ve long been interested in political philosophy and ethics, although my focus has been the former. Between now and grad school, my plan is simple: I’m going to try expanding my philosophical horizons. For now, I’ll focus on reading up on ethics. I’ll make an attempt to post critical summaries of my readings on a bi-weekly basis, starting with a reflection on W.D. Ross’s “The Right and the Good”. That particular reflection will be posted by next week. After writing a review of W.D. Ross, I’ll either write a critical summary of AJ Ayer’s “Language, Truth and Logic” or Bernard Williams’s “Relativism” (it should be noted that these are excerpts from an anthology entitled Ethics). In order to challenge myself, I’ll defend one of them against potential criticisms; anyone who knows me well ought to be aware that I am a deontologist and a moral realist, so doing so will be a great exercise for me. I’m not sure what I’ll write on after that, so stay tuned for more information!

Additionally, I’m working on revising a paper on discrimination for publication in an academic journal. The main feedback I got from the reviewers was that several parts of my argument have become confusing. In the hopes of clearing it up, I’ll be writing blog post versions of each part of the paper. The idea is to write in a way that will be understandable to a general audience, thus enabling me to submit a much clearer revision this time around. I can’t guarantee a time frame for when the first section will be posted, but I’m hoping to have it up within the next few weeks. The first section will comprise of the introduction to the paper and setting up the main problem.

I know that my following on here is very small, so it’s not so much for the sake of attention or feedback that I’m doing this (although both certainly are welcome (especially the latter!)). This is more for the sake of ensuring that my philosophical skills will not only be sustained but hopefully further developed. This will also help ensure that I maintain my writing skills. Furthermore, writing for a blog will help me practice writing in a clear, easy to understand manner. With that being said, I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts and hopefully receiving feedback from those with an interest in philosophy.

PS If anyone has a reading recommendation, please do send it my way. I’d be more than happy to read up on suggested materials and write critical summaries on them.